White Mountains of California

There are many White Mountains in America but none can compare with the White Mountains that skirt the eastern edge of the Owens Valley in the Eastern Sierra. They are within eyeshot of the Sierra Nevada but totally different in many ways. The Sierra sucks all the moisture out of the Pacific storms, while less precipitation reaches the Whites.

The geology in the Whites is older, and the mountains are more eroded, like the ancient Bristlecone pine trees that crown its top.

The Bristlecones-the very name inspires in one visions of gnarled old trees in the golden glow of a setting sun over the crest of the mighty Sierra Nevada. Such patterns of survival are an inspiration to the soul. The eons of time and the relentless storms that the Bristlecones have withstood on the naked hillsides high in the Whites are a testament to perseverance in nature. John Muir would have loved this place, as much as he loved the Big Trees. No fire can burn up the Bristlecone Pine forest, and insects cannot penetrate their dense, resinous core.

Pieces of Bristlecone have been discovered in caves at far lower elevations around old desert lakes revealing cooler times in our past such as the Little Ice Age. Back in pioneer days, the Bristlecones were used for cabins, telephone poles and fence posts, and were greatly admired for their strength and durability. Anything built out of Bristlecone is built to last. Of course, nowadays, the trees are protected.

The White Mountains are a haven for a wide variety of high-altitude research projects, and people come from all over the world to study there. Everyone from geology students to tree freaks invade the area every summer. They base camp at Grandview Campground at the 8,200 foot level in the Pinyon forest ecozone below the Bristlecones. The Bristlecones are up at the 10,000 foot level.

Grandview is one of the old time Forest Service campgrounds with no water and no fee. There is no view from the campground, unless you climb up a hill to view the Sierra to the west or the desert ranges that roll down to Death Valley and Panamint Range to the south. Sometimes the light will shine on the 200 foot high Eureka Sand Dunes that can be seen just over a ridge from the south end of the campground. There are no other campgrounds in this part of the Whites, except some group camps down lower. Dispersed camping is in abundance and requires a California Campfire Permit that can be obtained at a Forest Service office. Always observe fire restrictions wherever you camp.

Some of the characters I have met at Grandview in the past were a railroad engineer, a guy from Utah who destroyed nuclear weapons for a living in Toole, top research scientists from every field, and world class astronomers who come when there is no moon. The strangest people I encountered were collecting animal specimens for schools and museums. They would set up nets to catch birds and traps to snatch rodents and squirrels. Then they would euthanize the animals and do their taxidermy thing. It was rather revolting.

Some other people were down lower digging up Pinyon trees by the hundreds for their Bonsai tree club in Placerville. It’s amazing what different groups are able to do with permits from the Forest Service. It doesn’t take long for things to get out of hand, when these activities are not monitored.

There is so much to do in the Whites from hiking, camping, OHV (off highway vehicle), fishing, mountain biking, hunting and exploring. The best thing is the scenery along the 20-mile drive along the ridge top of the range. It is the scenery and sheer immensity of the place that one never forgets, as you tool along the old dirt road at the top of the world.

There are full-on mining sites to examine with cabins still standing. As there were no roads into the area at the time that mining was going on, everything had to be packed in on mules and horses. The Indians had been hunting in the Whites for thousands of years, and their sites have been found at high altitude. Their prize was the Bighorn sheep, which still roams the area to this day. Because the snow would melt out so much faster in the Whites than the Sierra, the Indians could hunt more often over there. Not to mention the vast Pinyon pine nut crop that they would harvest in the foothills in the fall.

There are many different things to do and see around the entire range of the White Mountains, from Fish Lake Valley on the east side to Nevada’s highest peak, Boundary Peak, to the north. It would take many lifetimes to see it all, so there is no time like the present to start. It is worth it to journey there to experience something that you will never forget. The area is usually open from April 15-November 15. The White Mountains are one of California’s newest wilderness areas.


5 Responses to “White Mountains of California”

  1. Jim Casey Says:

    Planning a 5 day backing trip to the White Mountains in th spring. Have you traversed across the top of the range?


    • windyscotty Says:

      No, I have not traversed across the top of the Whites. I remember reading about a guy who skied the whole thing a long time ago. Storms were his worst enemy. It is a lot faster to get around on skis in that barren world.

      • Jim Casey Says:

        Thanks for the response. Don’t ski (yet) but planning to use a 4 season tent. Can’t wait to hit the trail.

  2. windyscotty Says:

    Just to be there is a thrill no matter what time of year it is. There is so much to see and do. For photography that place is incomparable. Whether you go on the trails or cross country, you will bond with the place and never forget the experience all the days of your life. What a lucky dude I was to work five summers up there as White Mountain Dave.

  3. Jim Casey Says:

    Yes, I’m understanding that the unique beauty to be experienced in the Whites is a memories for a lifetime trip. Trying educate and plan accordingly. Photography is a big part of our adventures. Thanks for your comments.

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